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Pythagoras Bound: Limit and Unlimited in Plato's Philebus DAVID A. KOLB WHY ARE THINGS the way they are? Plato and Democritus present opposed answers to this question. Not only is one a materialist while the other is not, but further, they employ different ontological strategies to answer the question "why?" Democritus traces the visible features of things, their colors and shapes and habits of movement, back to determinate fundamental entities, the atoms. About the features of the atoms themselves there is nothing more to say than that they are the way they are. We can distinguish here physical atomism from ontological atomism. Physical atomism is a doctrine about the ultimate constituents of matter. Ontological atomism is a doctrine about how entities of whatever kind come to have the features they have, the claim that there are basic entities which just are what they are and which are responsible for the features of other entities by some process of combination. The question "why?" comes to an end at the basic entities and their features plus a description of the process of combination. Democritus is an atomist in both these senses, the material atoms playing the role of ontologically basic units. The same ontological atomist strategy can be found, however, in those who deny the existence of physical atoms. Classical positivists and empiricists who postulate sense data deny physical atoms but keep the strategy of" regress to entities whose features have no further explanation. Plato, as represented in the Timaeus, was a physical atomist. But he rejects the ontological ultimacy of physical atoms, generating them out of a formless energy-space and basic mathematical patterns. In this article I argue that Plato is nowhere an ontological atomist, neither in the physical world nor in his psychology nor in the reahn of the eternal Forms. Plato is often interpreted, however, in ways which insert ontological atomism into his views. The most common way is to hold that the Forms are brutely given. Some Democritean atoms are round and others have hooks and there is nothing further to be said about why; so the Forms of courage [497] 498 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 2i: 4 OCT 1983 and cow-ness just are eternally what they are. After contacting the Forms we should have no more "why" questions. In the later Plato, the doctrine of the communion of the Forms in one another weakens the plausibility of this interpretation, and the "Pythagorean" generation of the Forms described by Aristotle refutes it.' There is a second way ontological atomism can be smuggled into Plato. Empiricist notions of the relation of universal and particular can make us read his discussions of collection and division and of the limit and the unlimited as if what was at stake was the correct classification of a realm of already given atomic particulars. Given what Plato says about the derived status of sensible objects we are not likely to read him as an ontological atomist on that level. His psychological discussions, however, can tempt us to read him as building up experiellce from atomic units of intellectual or sensible perception. This article takes up the Phi&bus, where ontological discussions of the mixture of limit and unlimited are applied in ethical discussions of pleasure and pain. My aim is to show that interpreters of the dialogue have been wrong in assuming that Plato is discussing the reclassification of a realm of given atomic experiences. When this psychological atomism is abandoned the dialogue gains in unity and cogency. Standard interpretations of the Phi&bus suggest Plato wishes us to reclassify the set of atomic experiences of pleasure and pain. Judging the better life would then involve finding relevant subsets and comparisons we had not previously noticed. If, however, we avoid psychological atomism, the discussions of pleasure and pain can be seen in a new light. Plato is asking us also to individuate pleasures and pains in new ways, so that in some cases what counts as a pleasure changes; as a result of this new individuation and classification we will use new standards of evaluation. After considering psychological atomism we turn to the Forms, showing that Plato also avoids ontological atomism in this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 497-511
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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